Working as a lingerie model naturally exposes a woman to certain amounts of sexual energy. However, no employee should be forced to submit to sexual harassment just because of the nature of their job. Find out how the Victoria’s Secret “Angels” have lived through misogyny, bullying, and other forms of sexual harassment within the company and what its board of directors is doing about it.
Across the country, women and men have been pushing for a broader definition of beauty on the covers of magazines, in catalogs, and on the runway. Companies have been adopting plus-sized models and those with athletic body types from a diverse range of ethic backgrounds in an effort to break out of certain stereotypes about modeling.
But those changes haven’t made it Victoria’s Secret. The lingerie giant is a subsidiary of L Brands, founded by billionaire Leslie Wexner. He and his long-time chief marketing officer Ed Razek, have resisted the urge to feminize the brand. While its competitors began including a wide range of women in their advertising, Victoria’s Secret filmed ads based on the stereotypical male fantasy, with scantily clad models, helicopters, motorcycles, and even fiery explosions.
And that same misogyny affected the company’s hiring choices as well. A New York Times report describes 6 current and former executives of the company sought to change its “porny” image. Instead, in 2018, Razek rebuffed their efforts, driving some out of the company. When interviewed about that year’s fashion show, he told Vogue:
“So it’s like, why don’t you do [size] 50? Why don’t you do 60? Why don’t you do 24? It’s like, why doesn’t your show do this? Shouldn’t you have transsexuals in the show? No. No, I don’t think we should. Well, why not? Because the show is a fantasy.”
That sexual fantasy mindset made its way beyond the runway as well. Models and prospective models told the New York Times that they had been misled to believe they were being recruited for a model, when really it was a setup for sexual harassment and abuse.
Wexner was close friends with Jeffrey Epstein, who was charged with sex trafficking in 2019 and sexual assault of children as young as 14 by New York state prosecutors. Epstein had served as Wexner’s personal financial manager. According to the New York Times, he had used that position to pose as a recruiter for Victoria Secret and lure young women into posing for him between 1995 and 2006. He is said to have invited them into auditions, at least two of which ended in sexual assault. The New York indictment against Epstein contained this statement by an unnamed prospective Victoria’s Secret “angel”:
“I had spent all of my savings getting Victoria’s Secret lingerie to prepare for what I thought would be my audition. . . . But instead it seemed like a casting call for prostitution. I felt like I was in hell.”
Epstein wasn’t the only one taking advantage of the tough competition for models hoping to land a contract as a Victoria’s Secret angel. Razek himself is said to have exuded “toxic masculinity.” Models reported him approaching women in their underwear and asking for their numbers, urging them to sit on his lap, and even touching them over their underwear during fittings. Several witnesses report him saying (in regard to whether network television would allow the broadcast of a particular set of lingerie):
“‘Forget the panties,’ he declared, according to three people who were there and a fourth who was told about it. The bigger question, he said, was whether the TV network would let Ms. Hadid walk ‘down the runway with those perfect titties.’ (One witness remembered Mr. Razek using the word ‘breasts,’ not ‘titties.’)”
However, perhaps most disconcerting were allegations that Victoria’s Secret models were compelled to participate in nude photo shoots, often without pay, for fear that they would be cut from the runway. Some of these pornographic images were then published in a coffee-table book selling for $1800 to $3600. This made even some L Brands executives uncomfortable and concerned that the women were pressured to take their clothes off.
Many of these incidents and others resulted in complaints to HR. Some even resulted in sexual harassment settlements. However, until recently, the “Angels” seemed to feel that the company did not take their concerns seriously. Casey Crowe Taylor, a former public relations employee, told the New York Times:
“What was most alarming to me, as someone who was always raised as an independent woman, was just how ingrained this behavior was. . . . This abuse was just laughed off and accepted as normal. It was almost like brainwashing. And anyone who tried to do anything about it wasn’t just ignored. They were punished.”
In response to Jeff Epstein’s criminal indictment, the L Brands board of directors hired a law firm, Davis Polk & Wardell to conduct “a thorough review” of his involvement with the company. However, Davis Polk wasn’t an independent investigator of the company’s actions. Wexner’s wife Abigail had previously worked at the firm and one longtime partner was a former L Brands board member. Epstein’s subsequent suicide while in jail awaiting trial, that investigation seemed not to come to much of a conclusion.
Then Mr. Razek stepped down in August 2019. Wexner has announced he is exploring plans to retire and sell Victoria’s Secrets. Since L Brands is a publicly traded company, that has shifted more power to the company’s board of directors. Spokeswoman Tammy Roberts Myers said that the company “is intensely focused” on corporate governance and workplace and compliance practices. She said the board’s independent directors were “fully committed to continuous improvement and complete accountability.” However, what that will mean to the models and employees who had been the targets of bullying, misogyny and sexual harassment at the company remains to be seen.
At Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, our experienced sexual harassment attorneys believe that every employee has the right to be free from sexual harassment at work, even models. We know how to use federal and state anti-discrimination laws to get you the protection and compensation you need from misogyny, bullying, and sexual harassment in the workplace. We can meet with you at our headquarters in the heart of New York City, or conference with you remotely, to help you plan a strategy to put an end to sexual harassment at work. Contact Eisenberg & Baum, LLP, today to talk to an attorney.